The most significant criminal justice policy changes from the COVID-19 pandemic

Which federal, state, and local policymakers have taken meaningful steps to protect people in prisons and jails from COVID-19, and what exactly did they do? We created this COVID-19 policy tracker at the beginning of the pandemic to help the public understand what was — and wasn’t — being done to depopulate crowded prisons and jails and make them safer.

The big picture that this policy tracker reveals is grim: Lawmakers have failed to reduce prison and jail populations enough to slow down the spread of the coronavirus, causing incarcerated people to get sick and die at a rate unparalleled in the general public.

However, some individual state and local policymakers have recognized the urgency of the situation, and taken actions that show how we can release a large number of people from prison — a necessary step to ending mass incarceration. And some policy changes made during the pandemic — like eliminating cruel copays for incarcerated people — are ones we should demand be extended permanently.

Read on for our curated list of the most significant criminal justice policy responses during the pandemic. And check out our main COVID-19 page for our research and analysis on the virus behind bars.

Prisons increasing releases

We reported early in the pandemic that prisons were releasing almost no one. Almost 2 years later, it’s still true: We found that the moderate drops in prison populations in 2020 were the result of fewer admissions, not more releases. And shockingly, most parole boards granted fewer paroles during 2020 than 2019. The result? As of December 2020, 19 state prison systems were still at 90% capacity or higher.

And yet state prisons are filled with people with preexisting medical conditions that put them a heightened risk for complications from COVID-19. So far, we are aware of these state officials taking steps to reduce the prison population in the face of the pandemic:

State legislation

  • The New Jersey legislature passed a bill (S2519) on October 19th, signed shortly after by Governor Phil Murphy, that allowed for people with less than a year left on their sentences to be released up to eight months early. More than 2,000 people were released on Wednesday, November 4th from state prisons, and an estimated 1,000 more people were released in the following weeks and months. (November 5)

Governor executive orders and commutations

  • In February 2021, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper announced plans to release 3,500 people in state custody (with 1,500 of those releases to take place within 90 days). The releases were the result of a NAACP lawsuit challenging prison conditions in North Carolina during COVID-19. The state said it would release people using discretionary sentence credits (similar to "good time credits"), home confinement, and post-release supervision. (Feb 25)
  • In April, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt commuted the sentences of over 450 people. An initial press release stated that approximately 400 of those people would be released on April 16th, but the Governor’s office later claimed this was a communication error, and that only about 100 individuals would be released on the 16th. (April 16)
  • Washington State Governor Jay Inslee commuted the sentences of 293 people. (April 23)
  • In April, Kentucky officials announced that Governor Beshear commuted the sentences of 186 people convicted of felonies and that the state planned to release over 700 more people within 6 months of completing their sentences. By August, the governor had commuted the sentences of 646 additional people with medical vulnerabilities or with less than 6 months left of their sentence for “nonviolent, nonsexual crimes.” (August 25)
  • New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed an executive order on April 10th, supposedly beginning the process of “temporarily” releasing some people in state prisons who had been convicted of nonviolent offenses. As of September 10th, 416 people were approved for release and 329 of them had already been released. (September 10)
  • The Colorado Department of Corrections released 290 people following the March 25th executive order from the governor, which gave the DOC authority to release people within 180 days of their parole eligibility date.
  • In Arkansas, the governor issued a directive on April 20th to consider the early release of some people in state prison. As a result, the state Board of Corrections made over 1,200 people “immediately” eligible for parole. On May 12th, state officials reported that 300 people had been released from Arkansas state prisons. (May 14)
  • In June, Oregon Governor Kate Brown agreed to consider early release for people identified as medically vulnerable, not serving a sentence for a crime against another person, and having served at least 50% of their sentence with a plan for returning to their community. On June 26th, the governor approved the release of 57 people. In August, Governor Brown asked for another list of people who meet the same criteria to consider for commutations. (August 25)
  • On August 14th, Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order that encourages the early release of people who are older, pregnant, near their release date, or with behavioral health concerns that can be redirected to treatment, as well as those incarcerated for traffic violations or failure to pay fines and fees. (August 14)
  • In California, Governor Newsom announced that he would grant 21 commutations and 13 pardons. (July 10)
  • On April 10th, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf agreed to temporary reprieve for people in state prisons who met specific eligibility criteria. This was expected to potentially affect up to 1,800 incarcerated people, but almost one month later, only 150 people had been released under this program. (June 24)
  • At the end of May, the Corrections Department announced that 46 people had been released following an executive order from the governor to commute sentences of people within 30 days of their release date who meet specific offense criteria. (June 24)
  • In New York at the end of March 2020, Governor Cuomo announced that up to 1,100 people who are being held in jails and prisons across the state may be released with community supervision. As of June 8th, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision reported that 898 people had been released after reviewing individuals for early release in light of COVID-19. Separately, the Governor announced on April 30th that 6 pregnant women were to be released from New York state prisons as a result of Cuomo’s initiative to release “pregnant, nonviolent offenders with under six months remaining on their sentences.” (June 8)
  • On April 23, lawmakers approved the governor’s proposal to grant the Virginia Department of Corrections the authority to release people in prison for “nonviolent” offenses with one year or less remaining in their sentences. Since then, as of May 7th, 130 people have been released, and another 100 have been approved for early release. (May 8)
  • On April 30, the governor of Kansas announced the upcoming release of some people nearing the end of their prison sentences. As of May 4th, only 6 people had been released from prison to home confinement as a result of the pandemic. (May 4)
  • In Maryland, Governor Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. signed an executive order allowing for the accelerated release of people within 4 months of completing their sentence, prioritizing release for older people, and encouraging consideration of release to home detention. (April 19)
  • On April 16th, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine authorized the early release of 105 people from state prison who are nearing the end of their sentence. On April 17th, he commuted the sentences of 7 people in Ohio state prisons. (April 17)
  • In Illinois, the governor signed an executive order that eases the restrictions on early prison releases for “good behavior” by waiving the required 14-day notification to the State Attorney’s office. The executive order explicitly states that this is an effort to reduce the prison population, which is particularly vulnerable to the COVID-19 outbreak. (March 23)
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Policy changes in correction departments and parole boards

  • The Federal Bureau of Prisons released over 24,000 people over the course of the pandemic to serve the remainder of their sentences in home confinement. (The CARES Act authorized federal prisons to send home incarcerated people who were elderly or convicted of certain nonviolent crimes.) A Department of Justice memo issued in the final days of the Trump Administration indicated these formerly incarcerated people would have to go back to prison at the end of the pandemic. However, in December 2021, the Biden Administration reversed course. Its new legal analysis gave the Bureau of Prisons the discretion to allow these formerly incarcerated people to finish their sentences at their homes. (December 23, 2021)
  • California made more "good time" credits available to about 76,000 people in the state's prisons. This expansion of good time was the result of Proposition 57, the Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016, approved by a majority of California voters five years ago. (May 7, 2021)
  • According to the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, almost 1,600 people had been released from state prisons from March 2nd to May 4th in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The majority of them - 1,447 people - were detained for technical violations of probation or parole. (May 8, 2020)
  • On March 23rd, the Iowa Department of Corrections announced the expedited release of about 700 incarcerated people who were determined eligible for release by the Iowa Board of Parole. From March 1st through April 20th, 811 people have been released from prison. On April 20th, the Iowa DOC announced that the department was in the process of releasing 482 more people early. (April 20)
  • In Connecticut (which has a combined prison and jail system), the Department of Correction Commissioner granted discretionary release to 560 people in May. From March through June, the prison population dropped by about 2,000 people (or 16%). Later, following a federal lawsuit in June, the DOC was required to identify people 65 and older who met specific criteria to “fast track” them for release consideration. (June 8)
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  • The North Dakota Parole Board granted 120 applicants parole in March 2020, all related to the COVID-19 pandemic. In April, more than 100 other people were granted parole, although there is no official statement that these were also exclusively the result of mitigation efforts around COVID-19. (May 8)
  • The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) announced on June 16th that people in state prisons for “non-violent” offenses with less than 180 days left on their sentence were eligible for supervised release beginning July 1st. At the end of March, 3,500 people with parole dates scheduled for April were paroled a few days or weeks early. In July, the CDCR announced that an estimated 8,000 more people could be released by the end of August. These potential releases included people who were scheduled to be released soon and the medically vulnerable. (July 10)
  • In early April, the Louisiana Department of Corrections created a review panel to consider up to 1,100 people for temporary medical release. By the time the panel was suspended in June, fewer than 600 cases had been reviewed, with a total of 63 people to be released. Those 63 people represented 11% of those considered, and about 0.2% of the entire Louisiana prison population. (June 30)
  • On June 24th, the New Mexico Corrections Department announced that 71 people had been released from state prisons early due to COVID-19. At the end of May, the Corrections Department announced that 46 people had been released following an executive order from the governor to commute sentences of people within 30 days of their release date who met specific offense criteria. It was not clear if those 46 commutations were included in the most recent reports of 71 people being released early. (June 24)
  • In June, the Pennsylvania state government claimed to have taken action “furloughing paroled individuals from centers to home plans; working with the parole board to maximize parole releases; reviewing parole detainers for those in county jails and state prisons; expediting the release process for anyone with a pending approved home plan; [and] reviewing and releasing inmates who are beyond their minimum sentences,” but did not say how many individuals benefited from those actions. (June 24)
  • The Oklahoma Department of Corrections identified 126 incarcerated people with medical issues that elevate their risk for COVID-19 and recommended 14 of those to the Pardon and Parole Board to review in an emergency medical parole docket on May 13th. The Board recommended medical parole for 12 of those people (of the other 2 people, one was already paroled and the other waived his right for parole because his release date was imminent). (May 14)
  • The North Carolina Department of Public Safety released 485 people early from state prisons between March and May. In addition, 182 people were released to serve their sentences outside of prison, in home confinement. (The ACLU of North Carolina pointed out that this was not a significant improvement upon normal release schedules, as approximately 68 people were released daily prior to the pandemic. The same could be said of other states that released people slowly.) (May 3)
  • On April 16th, the Washington Department of Corrections published the names of over 1,500 people to be released early from state prisons. (This may have included a few hundred people whose sentences were commuted by Gov. Inslee.) (April 23)
  • In Wisconsin, the Department of Corrections released 1,000 people held on probation or parole detainers (i.e. for a probation or parole violation). (April 2)
  • In the month of March, the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation reduced their prison population by over 100 people. The releases included 70 people who were serving short prison terms for “parole-related sanctions,” and some people who were eligible for weekend furloughs have had their furloughs extended to two weeks. (April 1)
  • The Utah Department of Corrections recommended over 80 people for release from state prisons to the Board of Pardons and Parole in March 2020. The DOC reported that the people referred for release were within 90 days of completing their sentences. (March 26)
  • In March 2020, the Director of the Rhode Island Department of Corrections submitted weekly lists of people being held on low bail amounts to the public defender’s and attorney general’s offices for assessment in efforts to have them released. (Rhode Island is one of a handful of states that do not have jails, meaning that pretrial detainees are held in prisons.) The state DOC was also evaluating people with less than 4 years on their sentences to see if they could apply “good time” and release them early. (March 25)
  • The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles reviewed approximately 200 people for early release. They considered people serving time for nonviolent offenses who are within 180 days of completing their prison sentences (or of their tentative parole date). (March 31)
  • In early April, the number of people being paroled from Michigan state prisons reportedly increased by about 1,000 people per month to reduce prison density. In early June, the Department of Corrections reported that the overall prison population had decreased by 1,958 — or about 5% — since March 20th. (However, a Deadline Detroit article in January 2021 found that over the course of 2020, Michigan paroled fewer people overall than it paroled in 2019. (June 5)

Court orders

  • In June 2020, California state courts reviewed approximately 3,500 people who had been identified for early release from prisons in response to COVID-19. (We don’t know how many were eventually released.) Later, in October, a California state appeals court ordered half of the 2,900 people incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison to be transferred or released. The court found that the prison failed to release some of the most vulnerable people, including those serving long sentences and those who had been in prison for decades. Prison officials decided who would leave San Quentin and whether they would be transferred or released. (October 20)
  • On May 19th, a federal judge ordered the federal Bureau of Prisons to “expedite the release” of 837 people in the Elkton Federal Correctional Institution in Ohio. (May 20)
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  • In Hawaii (which has a combined jail and prison system), the state supreme court appointed a special master to coordinate potential releases with public defenders beginning in early April. From March 2nd through May 1st, courts reportedly granted early release to 655 people, following motions filed primarily by the Office of the Public Defender. (May 1)
  • Following a ruling from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on April 3rd, which made people held for technical probation/parole violations eligible for release hearings, 13 people were released and 58 people were paroled from state prisons. In addition, 23 requests for medical parole were approved. (April 14)
  • Maryland Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera ordered the state’s trial courts to identify and release people in prisons who are at risk for COVID-19 and “pose no threat to public safety.” (April 14)

Prisons reducing admissions

We published a short report showing that prison population cuts since the beginning of the pandemic are mostly due to states reducing prison admissions — not releasing people. And while reductions in admissions help slow down the virus in prisons themselves, they also cause jails — where people are held after being sentenced — to see populations go up.

Governor executive orders

  • On March 26th, the Illinois governor signed an executive order that halted new admissions to state prison facilities. This practice remained in place until July 27th, when transfers from county jails to Illinois Department of Corrections facilities resumed. (July 28)
  • In late March, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order halting new intakes at California’s state prisons and juvenile facilities to prevent transmissions of the virus from jails into state prisons. As of August 24th, intakes have resumed at least two of the five California state prisons. (September 1)

Correctional department policy changes

  • The Colorado Department of Corrections states that, in concert with law enforcement, arrests for “low level technical parole violations” are temporarily suspended to help reduce the number of people being returned to state prisons. (March 23)
  • The Oklahoma Department of Corrections announced that they are suspending admissions of newly sentenced individuals to state prisons, in an effort to prevent the virus from spreading rapidly behind prison bars. (March 22)

Jails increasing releases

Jails and prisons house large numbers of people with chronic diseases and complex medical needs who are more vulnerable to COVID-19. At the beginning of the pandemic, jails cut their populations by as much as 30%, helping to protect many of these people. But states and counties abandoned their efforts to keep jail populations low as the pandemic wore on.

Some of the most significant actions taken by courts, jail administrators, sheriffs, and prosecutors to release people during COVID-19 are:

Court orders

  • A California Superior Court judge ordered that the Orange County jail population must be cut in half, after ruling that the sheriff had failed to reduce the population enough to allow appropriate social distancing. The sheriff reported that this order would result in the release of more than 1,800 people. (December 12)
  • On April 6th, California set a statewide emergency bail schedule that reduced bail to $0 for most misdemeanor and some low-level felony offenses, causing California jail populations to drop. By the end of May, jail populations in Los Angeles County and Sacramento County had decreased by over 30%. Orange County’s jail population dropped by almost 45% in the same period, while other counties — including San Diego, San Mateo, and Stanislaus — also released hundreds of people held pretrial. The judicial council voted to end this statewide emergency bail schedule in June, but 31 counties (collectively housing about 80% of California residents) elected to keep the emergency bail schedule in place. (July 10)
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  • Sentencing judges in the Detroit, Michigan area ordered the release of 384 people from the Wayne County Jail and 150 people from the Oakland County jail. (June 2)
  • Following an April 5th order from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, which authorized the release of people held in jails pretrial for “nonviolent” offenses and those held on technical probation and parole violations, both the Plymouth County and Norfolk County jails reduced their populations by around 20%. The Bristol County jail population, meanwhile, decreased 11% from April 5th to May 20. (A previous story reported that 300 people held in jails across the state had been released as a result of the court order.) (May 20)
  • In Miami-Dade County jails, in Florida, the jail population has reportedly dropped from about 4,000 people before the pandemic to about 3,200 people -- about a 20% decrease in the average daily population. This reduction is the result of efforts by “lawyers and judges.” (May 19)
  • In March, Ohio courts in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) and Hamilton County began to issue court orders and conduct special hearings to increase the number of people released from local jails. From March 10th through May, the Cuyahoga County jail released about 900 people, reducing its population by more than 30%. (May 13)
  • In Charles County, Maryland, people were released from jail following bail hearings and people serving short weekend sentences, and the jail was reportedly “at less than 30% capacity.” A county public defender reported that of the 60 motions for release that he has filed, 30 people had been released as of April 28th. (April 29)
  • In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the local jail population dropped by 17% in April, following special court hearings to release hundreds of people held for low-level charges, cash-bail, and “nonviolent” charges. (April 22)
  • In Clark County, Nevada (Las Vegas), 115 people were released from county jail in mid April and the sheriff reported that over 100 more people were eligible for release under the same court petition. (April 21)
  • From March 1st to April 15th, the average daily number of people in jail in Denver, Colorado, dropped by about 41% following the release of people over 60 years old, those who are pregnant or have health conditions, people with low bond amounts, and those with less than 60 days remaining on their sentences. (April 21)
  • In Allegheny County, PA, 545 people held in the county jail were approved for release by the courts and physically discharged from custody. (March 27)
  • A judge in the Bronx approved the release of 51 people jailed for alleged parole violations on Rikers Island in New York City. (April 13)
  • A judge in Georgia ordered the release of over 100 people being held at the Dekalb County Jail, decreasing the jail’s population by a reported 7%. (April 13)
  • In Alabama, Mobile Metro Jail’s population decreased from 1,580 to 1,100 in four weeks. The people who were released were charged with nonviolent offenses, over 55 years old, or had preexisting medical conditions that made them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. (April 10)
  • A Pennsylvania District Court judge ordered ICE to release more than 10 people being detained at the York County Prison, Clinton County Correctional Facility, and Pike County Correctional Facility because they were at elevated risk for serious complications from COVID-19. (March 31)
  • New Jersey Chief Justice Stuart Rabner signed an order calling for the temporary release of 1,000 people from jails(almost a tenth of the entire state’s county jail population) across the state of New Jersey who were serving county jail sentences for probation violations, municipal court convictions, “low-level indictable crimes,” and “disorderly persons offenses.” (March 23)
  • In Arizona, the Coconino County court system and jail released around 50 people who were held in the county jail on non-violent charges. (March 20)
  • More than 85 people (almost 7% of the jail’s population) were released from the Greenville County Detention Center in Greenville, South Carolina, following a state order from the Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Beatty urging South Carolina judicial circuits to avoid issuing bench warrants and start releasing people charged with non-violent offenses. (March 20)
  • Court orders in Spokane, Washington and in three counties in Alabama authorized the release of people being held pretrial and some people serving sentences for “low-level” misdemeanor offenses. (March 17 and March 18)
  • In Travis County, Texas, judges released more people from local jails on personal bonds (about 50% more often than usual), focusing on preventing people with health issues who are charged with non-violent offenses from going into the jail system. (March 16)
  • The Legal Aid Society in NYC secured the immediate release of over 100 individuals held at Rikers Island on non-criminal, technical parole violations. (March 27)

Actions by jail administrators and sheriffs

  • The Duval County, Florida jail population dropped by approximately 16% over about a month, after the jail released people who were nearing the end of their misdemeanor sentences. (April 28)
  • In Washington County, Oregon, early releases of people held for “low-level” offenses reportedly helped drop the jail population by “half.” (April 28)
  • Morgan County Jail, in Alabama, released about 16% of their jail population — 107 people — from March 16th through April 19th. The Sheriff’s Office provided lists of detained people to be considered for release including those held for “nonviolent” offenses and those with medical issues. (April 19)
  • Approximately 1,000 people were released from the jails in Dallas County, Texas to help reduce the risk of transmission. (April 16)
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  • In Cumberland County, Maine, the sheriff reports that the jail population has decreased by 25% since January, due in large part to release of people who were held for “low level, nonviolent crimes” with less than 90 days left on their sentences. (April 15)
  • The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department reduced their jail population by 10% in March to mitigate the risk of virus transmission in crowded jails. To reduce the jail population by 1,700 people, the Sheriff reported releasing people with less than 30 days left on their sentences. (March 24)

Prosecutor discretion

  • More than 100 people were released from Boulder County Jail in Colorado following efforts from the district attorney’s office to reduce the jail population based on preexisting medical conditions and utilizing personal recognizance bonds. (April 4)
  • Multnomah County Jail in Oregon reduced their jail population by about 30% in April by reducing arrests and increasing early and pretrial releases, an action driven by the DA’s office. (April 14)
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  • In April, some jails in Pennsylvania — including Bucks County and Northumberland County — reduced the jail population by 30% via increased releases. (April 16)
  • 65 people were released early from the Westchester County Jail in Valhalla, New York, following discussions between the District Attorney and the Legal Aid Society of Westchester. (April 13)
  • In Salt Lake County, Utah, the District Attorney reported that the county jail planned to release at least 90 people and to conduct another set of releases of up to 100 more people in the latter half of March. (March 21)
  • District attorneys in San Francisco, California and Boulder, Colorado took steps to release people held pretrial, with limited time left on their sentence, and charged with non-violent offenses. (March 11 and March 16)

Jails reducing admissions

Court orders

  • In Michigan, the chief judge of the Wayne County Circuit Court signed at least 200 orders for administrative releases from March through June. (June 2)
  • The population of the Halifax County Adult Detention Center, in Virginia, decreased from 184 people in December 2019 to 150 people in April (about a 19% reduction). The jail administrator cited reduced court commitments, as well as individual court orders to release people. (April 26)
  • Maine state courts vacated all outstanding bench warrants (for over 12,000 people) for unpaid court fines and fees and for failure to appear for hearings in an effort to reduce jail admissions. (March 17)

Changes in policing

  • In Kentucky, arrests decreased from about 700 per day to 175 per day to reduce the pretrial jail population, according to the director of the Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts. (April 17)
  • Police departments in Los Angeles County, California, Denver, Colorado, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania reduced arrests by using cite and release practices, delaying arrests, and issuing summons. In Los Angeles County, the number of arrests has decreased from an average of 300 per day to about 60 per day. (March 16 and March 17)
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  • In April, the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon announced that they had reduced their county jail population to 83 people by reducing arrests (the average population is 165 people) and by only admitting people who were arrested for “serious crimes.” On June 9th, the jail resumed admissions for additional charges, including all “person to person” crimes (felony or misdemeanor). (June 9)
  • In the Detroit, Michigan area, law enforcement reduced the number of arrests and served fewer warrants from March-April. (June 2)
  • Across the state of Delaware (which has a combined jail and prison system), arrests for felony and misdemeanor crimes dropped by about 45% following the governor’s March 12th emergency stay-at-home order. Some Delaware law enforcement officials attributed this to a combined effect of people adhering to the stay-at-home order and also to “changes in policing...for the safety of officers and to prevent the spread of COVID-19.” (May 5)
  • In York County, Maine, police officers made fewer arrests, issued summons for less serious offenses, and judges allowed sentences to be delayed. Over the course of the month of March, this approach reduced the jail population by about one third. From March 11th through mid-April, only 61 arrests took place in York County. (April 15)
  • The Chippewa County Sheriff’s Office in Wisconsin reduced the county jail population from an average of 120 people to 50-60 people in April, primarily through citation and release rather than arrest and pretrial detention. (April 10)
  • In King County, Washington (Seattle), jails no longer accepted people booked on misdemeanor charges that did not present a public safety concern or people who were arrested for violating terms of community supervision. The Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention also delayed all misdemeanor “commitment sentences” (court orders requiring someone to report to a jail at a later date to serve their sentence). (March 24)
  • In response to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections’ decision not to admit any new people to state prisons, Tulsa and Oklahoma counties tried to keep their jail population down by not arresting people for misdemeanor offenses and warrants, and by releasing 130 people through accelerated bond reviews and plea agreements. (March 22)
  • In Bexar County, Texas, Sheriff Javier Salazar released a COVID-19 mitigation plan that includes encouraging the use of cite and release and “filing non-violent offenses at large,” rather than locking more people up during this pandemic. (March 14)

Actions by jail administrators and sheriffs

  • The Cuyahoga County Jail (Cleveland, Ohio) announced that the jail would stop admitting people on new misdemeanor charges, except in cases of domestic violence charges, to reduce the jail population in the face of growing COVID-19 infection rates. (November 16)
  • On July 10th, the sheriff announced that in Jefferson County, Alabama, the jail would limit admissions to only “violent felons that cannot make bond” (it’s unclear whether “violent” refers to the crime a person is charged with, crimes of which they have already convicted, a label imposed on them by a risk assessment tool, or something else). One week later, the jail resumed normal admission operations. (August 7)
  • Since the California statewide emergency order issued on April 6th, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office released half of the people who have been arrested with citations, rather than admitting them to the county jail. (April 20)

Prosecutor discretion

  • District attorneys in Brooklyn, New York and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, took steps in mid-March to reduce jail admissions by releasing people charged with non-violent offenses and not actively prosecuting low-level, non-violent offenses. The Philadelphia Police Department announced on May 1st that they would resume arrests for certain property crimes. (May 1)
  • In Maricopa County, Arizona, county prosecutors reduced the number of charges they are filing, which has helped effect a jail population drop of almost 30%. In the first week of March 2020, prosecutors filed 734 cases, and in late April, they filed only 107. (April 28)
  • Baltimore, Maryland State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby dismissed pending criminal charges against anyone arrested for drug offenses, trespassing, and minor traffic offenses, among other nonviolent offenses. (March 18)

City and county ordinances

  • In April, the San Marcos, Texas city council passed a city ordinance to compel police to use citations in lieu of arrests for certain misdemeanors. The Hays County sheriff announced that starting September 1st, the sheriff’s office would be instituting a new “Cite and Divert” program in an effort to reduce arrests, jail time, and criminal charges. (July 9)

Other policy changes we're tracking in prisons and jails

Eliminating medical co-pays

In most states, incarcerated people are expected to pay $2-$5 co-pays for physician visits, medications, and testing in prisons. Because incarcerated people typically earn 14 to 63 cents per hour, these charges are the equivalent of charging a free-world worker $200 or $500 for a medical visit. The result is to discourage medical treatment and to put public health at risk. In 2019, some states recognized the harm and eliminated these co-pays in prisons. We’re tracking how states are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic:

Table created March 13, 2020 and last updated: February 3, 2022. We welcome updates from states that have revised their policies. States can contact us at *The Delaware Department of Corrections has not changed their co-pay policy. According to the DOC’s co-pay policy dated December 2019, there are no copays for “diagnostic and treatment of contagious/communicable diseases.” The Delaware DOC has confirmed that this includes diagnosis and treatment of COVID-19.
States that do not charge copays States that suspended all copays for incarcerated people in response to the pandemic States that suspended all copays for respiratory, flu‑related, or COVID‑19 symptoms States that rolled back previous suspensions and now charge medical copays on non‑COVID‑19 related symptoms Governments that rolled back previous suspensions and now charge all medical copays States that suspended some or all copays in response to the pandemic, but it is unclear if those suspensions are still in place States did not suspend copays in response to the COVID‑19 pandemic
New Mexico
Virginia Wyoming
New Jersey
Rhode Island
West Virginia
New Hampshire
North Carolina
North Dakota
South Carolina
Idaho Alabama
Federal Bureau of Prisons
South Dakota

Vaccine availability and uptake

Incarcerated people should have ranked high on every state’s priority list for the COVID-19 vaccine given the extremely high case and death rates in prisons.

But we found that only 10 states put incarcerated people in phase 1 of vaccine distribution — and 8 states didn’t list them in any vaccine phase at all (see the table below for more detail).

In May 2021, we aggregated data showing that scarcely 50% of people in prisons nationwide had received even one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. By our most recent count in July 2021 (part of our 50-state report States of Emergency), 15 states had still vaccinated less than 60% of incarcerated people.

Early in the pandemic, prison systems throughout the country began publishing COVID-19 data, lifting a tiny corner of the veil of secrecy that usually shields prisons from public scrutiny. But, as the Omicron variant began to threaten the country, we found most states provided very little data about the accessibility of vaccinations and booster shots behind bars.

Which vaccination phase each state assigned to incarcerated people and corrections staff

Incarcerated People Corrections Staff
Specifically listed in Phase 1 (or a Phase 1 subdivision) 10 states:
Conn., Del., Ill., Mass., Md., Neb., N.M., Ore., Pa., Wisc.
16 states:
Ark., Conn., Del., Ill., La., Maine, Mass., Md., Mo., Neb., Nev., N.M., N.C., Pa., Wisc., W.Va.
Not specifically listed, but from the context might belong to Phase 1 No states 10 states:
Ala., Ariz., Calif., Idaho, Iowa, Mont., N.J., N.D., S.C., Va.
Specifically listed in Phase 1 or Phase 2, depending on age and comorbidities 1 state:
No states
Plan was unclear, but from the context likely belong to Phase 1 or Phase 2 2 states:
Calif., Ky.
2 states:
Ky., Wyo.
Specifically listed in Phase 2 18 states:
Ala., Ariz., Ga., Idaho, Ind., Iowa, Kan., La., Miss., N.H., N.D., Ohio, Okla., R.I., Tenn., Utah, Vt., Wash.
13 states:
Colo., Ga., Ind., Kan., Miss., N.H., Ohio, Okla., R.I., Tenn., Utah, Vt., Wash.
Not specifically listed, but from the context might belong to Phase 2 5 states:
Maine, N.J., Va., W.Va., Wyo.
No states
Not specifically listed, but might belong to Phase 3 (Note: Phase 3 also includes all general populations) 1 state:
No states
Difficult to categorize (because the state did not follow the CDC's 3 Phases) 4 states:
Hawaii, Mont., Nev., N.Y.
2 states:
Hawaii, N.Y.
Not included in any Phase (neither specifically nor implied through additional context) 8 states:
Alaska, Ark., Colo., Fla., Mich., S.C., S.D., Texas
6 states:
Alaska, Fla., Mich., Ore., S.D., Texas

Reducing the cost of communication

Most federal prisons, state prisons and many local jails decided to drastically reduce or completely eliminate friends and family visitation to reduce the risk of COVID-19. But only a few made an effort to supplement this loss by waiving fees for phone calls and video communication. Here are three notable examples:

  • The Federal Bureau of Prisons temporarily made phone calls and video calls free. The free calls were a provision of the CARES Act, set to terminate at the end of the "covered emergency period,” 30 days after the president terminates the national emergency declaration.
  • Shelby County, Tennessee temporarily waived fees for all phone calls and video communication.
  • During April 2020, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) provided free calls on three days each week. However, just several weeks later, the department had scaled back its offer to two "free calling days" per month.

Rather than extending these compassionate policies long-term, all of the above agencies eventually went back to charging incarcerated people and their families the full burdensome cost of communication. Nationwide, 1 in 3 families with a loved one in prison go into debt to cover the cost of phone calls and visitation.

Changes to probation and parole

Probation and parole departments have made some welcome changes during the pandemic that they should extend permanently. These include:

Reducing in-person check-ins

  • In New York state, all in-person parole visits have been suspended and replaced with telephone call, text message, and video call check-ins.
  • The Rhode Island Department of Corrections announced that probation and parole offices will not hold in-person check-ins and that individual parole or probation officers will provide instructions to people on parole and probation about maintaining appropriate remote communication.
  • The California Department of Adult Parole Operations has reduced the number of required check-ins to protect staff and the supervised population by suspending office visits for people 65 and older, and those with chronic medical conditions.

Eliminating probation and parole fees

  • The Dane County Board canceled all of the fees associated with certain community supervision programs.
  • California repealed 23 criminal legal system fees including those for probation, mandatory supervision, and electronic monitoring programs.
  • The Fines and Fees Justice Center has several other examples of counties and states eliminating probation, parole, and other fees in its policy tracker.

Limiting incarceration for technical violations

  • The Colorado Department of Corrections temporarily suspended arrests for “low level technical parole violations” to help reduce the number of people being returned to state prisons.

There are other important policy changes that haven't happened anywhere. For example, too many states currently force people to remain in prison even after they've been approved for parole until they complete required programs (usually drug or alcohol treatment programs). With many of these required programs unavailable in prison during the pandemic, departments of correction and parole boards should allow people to finish these programs outside of prison instead.

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